Many people who have heard of J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes do not realise that the couple were instrumental in the founding of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in Britain.
Like many people in Britain, Priestley was deeply concerned by the country’s decision to test a hydrogen bomb at Christmas Island in 1957. Our first Object is “Britain and the Nuclear Bombs“, an article he wrote for the New Statesman in which he called for the country to set a moral standard by abandoning nuclear weapons:
“Alone we defied Hitler; and alone we can defy this nuclear madness … There may be other chain-reactions besides those leading to destruction; and we might start one”.
Priestley’s passionate writing and the moral authority he gained from his First World War experiences in the trenches and his Second World War broadcasting struck a chord with readers, who wrote sackfuls of letters to the magazine. A meeting of the Priestleys and existing peace campaigners was arranged at the flat of Kingsley Martin, the magazine’s editor, to discuss a national anti-nuclear campaign. As a result, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was formed, chaired by Earl Russell, Priestley was Vice-President and Canon L. John Collins chairman. Priestley was one of the speakers at the public launch of CND in the Central Hall Westminster, on 17 February 1958.
Jacquetta approached the issue from her unique perspective. Her famous books of the 1950s, A Land and Man on Earth, explored the deep history of human ideas and civilisation: nuclear weapons threatened to destroy that wonderful millennial growth of the brain and culture in an instant. She felt that women, as mothers and nurturers, had a key role to play in protesting the male madness that had led to the arms race. She expressed this most powerfully in her contribution to our other Object, the 1962 pamphlet, Women ask Why:
“I do not like to think of women apart from men. But in this one thing it is different … Men have got beyond killing one another and are preparing to kill us and our children. Women are slow to change. It might be that we should still all be peasants if it were not for masculine genius. But now that genius is running mad, and we have to come to the rescue”.
She put her ideas into practice by setting up the CND women’s group, calling on her many friends and contacts to help.
Find out more about the Priestleys’ roles in CND, their writings, Jacquetta’s involvement in the Aldermaston Marches, and why the couple eventually left the movement in this video, illustrated by photographs, books, pamphlets and other items from the Priestley and Hawkes archives …
… and if you would like the story with bibliographic references, see The Priestleys and the Bomb, by Alison Cullingford, an article that appeared in Peace Studies News at Bradford University in 2005.